In the dream, the waitress doesn’t come. She would never come, no matter how long the dream could float on the currents of unconsciousness before it burst. Mitch was waiting. The waitress would never take his order. A Reuben. With fries and a Dr. Pepper. It had been years since he’d had a good diner Reuben. He would not have one now. Even in his dreams.
The table was coated with dirt: not grime; not dust or grease; not crumbs from previous customers. Dirt. Earthy. Rooty. It smelled like dirt. In the dream it smelled like dirt. Mitch, sleeping, could also smell dirt. It was the same dirt. In the dream, the table covered in dirt didn’t seem unusual for a diner—or at least for this diner. The lights were out. The mossy floor was the floor of a forest—littered with trash and decaying leaves. The counter was heaped with broken dishes, rags, a wet cardboard box filled with papers.
As he waited for the waitress, who would never come, Mitch looked out the window. The window was coated with a thick grime and streaked with rain, although it was not raining. The bus sat idling at the curb across the street while Mitch was in the diner. The other passengers were in the diner—in the dream—and yet Mitch was alone. Not even the driver cluttered up his dream about waiting to order a Reuben. It was all he could think about—the Reuben: the corned beef, just a little fatty and sliced thin; the briny smell of sauerkraut, he could imagine it crunching as he bit through it, brief strings of Swiss cheese pulling from the sandwich, the crisp rye, buttery from the grill. It truly was a shame the waitress would not be coming.
Mitch sat at the table, alone, looking at the bus through the grimy window and thinking about a Reuben he would never order.
Mitch woke from his Reuben dream—which had been as disappointing as his sex dreams usually are. He was sitting on the bus, his head resting against the cool glass window. It was fogged from his breath and streaked with rain, although it was not raining outside of the dream either. The bus was parked across the street from a diner. The road and the parking lot and sidewalk were wet and reflected the small lights of the night. His footsteps echoing in the metal shell of the bus, Mitch got up and walked out into the cool air. He stretched. It seemed he’d been on the bus for ages. Between having just woken up and his hunger and stiffness, he could barely remember where he was going. Or where he’d come from.
He wanted a Reuben.
The diner was dark when he walked in. It was the diner of his dreams, in a manner of speaking. It even smelled like his dream. He brushed some loose dirt and twigs from a moldy naugahyde seat and slid in. The table was not set. It had not been cleaned—possibly in years. There was an old rag on the corner, which made him think it might get cleaned soon, when the rag’s operator returned from whatever it was that had kept her away for so long. He sat at the table thinking about a Reuben. It would come with a dill pickle, spear and French fries. Maybe steak fries. Maybe he’d order a side of gravy to dip them in. The diner was empty. Except for Mitch.
He looked out the greasy, rain-streaked window at the bus at the curb. After a few minutes, he stood up and helped himself to a menu from a stack near the shattered remains of a cash register. He didn’t really need it. He was getting a Reuben, but he liked to look at diner menus. And he needed something to occupy his mind while he waited for the waitress other than driving himself mad with the thought of his Reuben. The waitress would not come.
Mitch looked at the menu—read the whole thing. It was a novel about indecision. A swirling epic. The chapter on omelets was particularly scintillating, with its diced peppers and onions and mushroom slices. The bacon and sausage—links or patties—and toast: rye, wheat, or white. Mitch thrilled at the climax, with its nail-biting showdown between the stuffed flounder and the prime rib with horseradish sauce. Steak fries and beets. Cole slaw. And the ending, where the hero, Mitch, rides off into the sunset with a slice of hot apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream was inspired and satisfying. He wanted to read it again—to see the movie. Who would play the pork chops? he wondered.
The waitress never came. The lights stayed out. The bus was not idling—the abandoned husk of it stood sinking into the pavement on flattened tires where it had rested for years on the deserted street. No one came to grab the rag and wipe the table covered in damp earth and moss. No one would take his order: What’ll ya have, Hon?
I’ll have a Reuben, please. With a Dr. Pepper. Her hair would be up in a pony tail, perhaps with a pen or two tucked into it.
Yes, please—and could I get a side of gravy for the fries?
Sure thing, Sweetie.
And no one would ever bring him a Reuben.
He walked out of the diner and into the wet night. He left the menu on the table and crossed the street to the bus. Again. He climbed the three narrow steps and took his seat, his bones settling into his leathery skin and moldering clothes. He rested his head against the window—light reflected from the pavement twinkled on darkened sockets—remembering neither where he was going, nor where he came from. Just that he didn’t get to order a Reuben.
Ethan Tinkler teaches Creative Writing and English at Atlantic City High School in New Jersey. A graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson’s MFA program in Creative Writing, he was a reader for The Literary Review. He is published in The RavensPerch, Rosebud, Spittoon, and other small press journals. He was nominated a Pushcart and Best of the Net.